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Vegan Products Not ‘Milk’ Says FSSAI: Decoding the Plant vs Dairy Debate

Plant based vs Dairy Milk: What qualifies as 'milk'? The parameters are unclear

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Chew On This
5 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Plant-based vs dairy: The tug of war for the 'milk' tag continues</p></div>
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What is milk? It's unlikely you've had to give this question much thought.

You go to the grocer's, ask the storekeeper for 'milk', he points you to a fridge at the far corner, you pick out your choice from an array of cartons, and that's about the end of it.

But with more and more types of milk cartons being added to that shelf, food regulators have been forced to confront this question.

On 4th September, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India officially instructed all online marketplaces and e-commerce FBOs (Food Business Operators) to delist plant-based 'milk', as only animal derived dairy products can be called so.

The decision has rekindled a long-standing debate between the vegans and the dairy industry, with big players in the dairy industry, like Amul, and international animal rights group PETA in the forefront.

Can plant-based milk be classified as milk? FIT breaks down the debate.

This declaration puts into motion a draft released by the FSSAI in July 2020 that aimed to amend the Food Safety and Standards (Food Products Standards and Food Additives) Regulations, 2011, that for the first time in India, included regulations specifically for vegan and plant-based products.

Apart from the change in nomenclature, the draft also mentions other regulations for vegan products that are set to come into effect.

  • The products cannot have names that are phonetically similar to that of dairy products.

For instance, many dairy alternative brands work around such regulations with names like Mylk or Malk. This will not be permitted under the new FSSAI regulations.

  • This would also extend to other products derived from dairy such as curd, yogurt, and butter.

  • The regulation also requires vegan products to carry a logo that distinguishes it from animal derived dairy products.

Vegan groups have expressed their displeasure with the proposal.

Animal activist and chairperson of People for Animals (PFA) Maneka Gandhi, in August last year, wrote a letter to the then health minister Harsh Vardhan calling the move 'unreasonable', and noting that the move would negatively affect the growing plant-based products market.

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Milk, Mylk, Malk: The Same Debate Everywhere

The tug of war over the word 'milk' isn't a new one. As the plant-based products industry gained momentum in the western countries, the question of whether vegan 'milk' derived from plants can be classified as such has cropped up time and again.

The US FDA grappled with the same question in 2018 when FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb famously made the statement, “An almond doesn’t lactate, so almonds cannot be milked."

The European Court of Justice in 2018 banned terms like milk, cheese, butter from being associated with non-dairy products. Although, they made exceptions for 'coconut milk' and 'peanut butter'.

There hasn't been a resolution to the issue in either case, and these policies are yet not final.

Why has this debate spilled over to India, and why now?

In India, the plant based dairy alternative industry is only starting to pick up, but has also gained momentum in the last few years. According to the Bussineswire, the Indian dairy alternative market stood at $20.9 million in 2018, and is projected to grow at a CAGR of 20.7% to reach $63.9 million by 2024.

In the pandemic, India has seen a further boom in demand for vegan food, with popular fast food chains like Domino's and Baskin-Robbins also jumping on the wagon and expanding their menu to include vegan options.

This growth has also brought the industry under the scrutiny of the food authorities and the dairy industry here.

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Is it Milk or Not?

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Can Almond, soy or hemp beverages be called 'milk'?</p></div>

Can Almond, soy or hemp beverages be called 'milk'?

(Photo: iStock/ Altered by FIT)

Can you call plant-based beverages, 'milk'? Here's what the two sides say.

The base argument of the dairy industry is that plant-based beverages are not milk, and that they aren't as nutritious as milk.

So, they assert, there is a need to distinguish plant based beverages from 'milk' because it can otherwise mislead consumers into buying something they may think is equivalent to dairy milk.

"These plant-based milks have a positioning that says they are milk and that they are plant-based. Unfortunately, from a content basis, they are providing inferior nutrition compared to what you find in dairy products."
Chief science officer for the dairy cooperative Fonterra, at a convention in the US

Closer to home, dairy giant Amul recently put out a public interest advertisement saying plant based analogues 'are not milk', and that they are 'impersonating and masquerading as dairy products'.

The ad also goes on to list the many benefits of milk, adding, "Milk is naturally superior, with 100 to 150 percent more nutrients than any plant based beverage."

Opponents of this position question what qualifies as milk at all.

Considering the traditional and internationally accepted usage of the words associated with coconut milk, or peanut butter, the nomenclature seems to be based on the attributes of the product, and its function rather than its source.

So any opaque, white beverage which can be consumed, used in tea and coffee and for cooking is typically referred to as milk.

As far as nutrition is concerned, it is true that most plant-based milks fall short compared to dairy milk. But many companies fill that gap by fortifying their products with the lacking nutrients. Most soy milk, for instance, comes fortified with calcium and vitamin D.

If nutrition is a parameter for classifying a beverage as milk, would fortified vegan beverages then make it milk?

Watch: Let's talk about 'Milk': Which one is the best for you?

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Misleading Consumers?

Producers of plant based milk argue that that their consumers have no trouble distinguishing between plant-based and dairy milk, and that they have nothing to gain from trying to pass their products off as dairy when their consumers are specifically looking for non-dairy products.

"Consumers choose plant-based milk precisely because it is not cow’s milk, whether due to allergies; taste preference; or health, ethical, or environmental concerns," said Mercy for Animals India, a non-profit animal protection organisation, in a statement responding to the FSSAI's new regulations draft.

Why FSSAI’s Policy Matters

This is the first time that the regulations specifically for plant-based food, and their packaging have been laid out in India, and could shape the way this emerging industry takes its course in the country.

Advocates of veganism are worried the move will be counterproductive to creating a fair market for plant based products. They argue that it will confuse consumers and hurt the plant based products industry, pushing people further away from choosing dairy alternatives.

The dairy industry on the other hand welcome the policy as they believe there is a need to protect the dairy industry's rightful ownership over the term 'milk' and all the nutritional value a consumer associates with the word.

The draft however is still just that, a draft. The FSSAI is set to take a final call on these amendments to its 2011 regulations on 18 September. In the meantime, stakeholders are free to comments and suggestions on the draft.

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